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Trying to produce a regional voice

Essay by Ed Quillen

Journalism – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Early in May, we ventured to Gunnison for the annual conference on rural journalism that George Sibley puts together at Western State College.

Of all the journalism conventions, workshops, forums, and other excuses to travel on an expense account, this one is generally the most interesting because it delves into philosophy — “Why are we doing what we do?” — rather than the mechanics or the business side often featured at other gatherings.

In a sense, COLORADO CENTRAL is the offspring of that conference. While preparing for the initial workshop in 1990, I did some research on the First Amendment.

When it was adopted two centuries ago, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. It had about 28,000 people, and 35 newspapers. Many weren’t respectable or responsible; George Washington was accused of treason and worse in public prints, and the press coverage of Bill Clinton’s alleged peccadilloes is nothing compared to the abuse Thomas Jefferson received about Sally Hemmings and Maria Cosway.

So, the press that our Founding Fathers knew, and wanted to protect, was a press that was diverse, small, and often scurrilous.

Why were there so many papers then than now? Part of it is that there are a lot of other media now — television, radio, recordings, computer networks — so people aren’t limited to the printed page.

Also, back then, you could set up your own newspaper for about $1,500, a year’s wage for a skilled artisan. Thus almost anyone who had anything to say could save or raise the money, and open a paper. Go back even a century ago, and most cities boasted a labor paper, a socialist paper, a feminist paper, a gold-standard paper…papers for every political preference.

Technology changed that, and made publishing a business that took a lot of capital for Linotypes and mat casters and the other stuff of lore. But with the computer revolution, technology has returned us to the state of 1787 — publishing machinery is now fairly affordable. Thus now, as then, anyone who’s got something to say can get into the business.

That was the tenor of my talk in Gunnison in 1990, and it was inevitable that someone would say “Quillen, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?”

At the 1993 conference, a bunch of us met after hours at the Cattlemen’s Inn and kept talking about how we needed some regional journalism. Towns get covered pretty well by their own papers and radio stations, and the state gets covered by the metro papers and television. But in between, there’s a gap.

Martha and I batted that idea around for a while, and COLORADO CENTRAL is our effort to fill that gap, to put our resources into something we’d been talking about.

The 1994 conference specifically addressed “what can we do to produce a regional voice?”

One problem is defining a region. Colorado is fragmented into 63 counties, and that’s just a start on school districts, census tracts, special districts, watersheds, and all the other ways we organize ourselves. There are West Slope, Front Range, High Plains, South Slope, etc.

If you can figure that out, how to serve that region? Some aim at tourists, and others focus on business in general or real-estate in particular. We try to be a general-interest magazine, aimed primarily at residents with the goal of building a regional culture.

But we don’t have the space or resources to do some of the things that ought to be done — we need a Northern Lights for this part of the world, and I suggested to George Sibley that he and Western State pursue that.

Oh, and if you have our May issue, it might be quite valuable someday as a “Dewey defeats Truman” collector’s item.

Shortly after we went to press, Phil Klingsmith called to say he was dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination for governor. “After Bruce Benson got in, all my money dried up,” he said. “I don’t think anyone who’s got to work for a living can run for state-wide office any more.”

Scary thought, but at least you don’t have to be a millionaire to get into publishing these days.

— Ed Quillen